Long distance travel in the 17th and 18th centuries was often a dangerous affair. Travellers along the Chester Road were rightfully fearful of whom they might meet in the wild ‘waste’ of heathland known as The Coldfield which lay to the west of Sutton town. It was the haunt of highwaymen, vagabonds and thieves. Such was the danger that in the Middle Ages a cottage had been built at Pype Hayes by the Earl of Warwick where two armed men offered some protection to travellers along that stretch of the Chester Road.
The road had been so-named from 1759 when it was turnpiked by sections from London to Chester. It had been a main route from the south-east to the north-west of England from prehistoric times but was increasingly used as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. The London-Chester stage coach operated from 1659, taking two days to make the journey with an overnight stop at Castle Bromwich, and ran until about 1840 when it was put out of business by the railways.
For highwaymen there were easy pickings on Sutton Chase. The rewards could be good, but the penalty when captured was the ultimate, death by hanging – or worse. Hence the name Gibbet Hill.
Marked on 19th-century maps near the Chester Road at New Oscott, Gibbet Hill is the rising land where Welford Road and Maxstoke Road are now located. It is thought that here in 1729 a merchant from London was murdered and his attacker subsequently hanged on the hill overlooking Chester Road where his crime had been committed. But not only hanged, but gibbetted.
Crime and Punishment
‘For better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder’, the Murder Act of 1751 forbade the bodies of murderers to be buried. The cadaver could either be sold to surgeons for dissection or be gibbetted. This was a procedure whereby, after execution by hanging, the criminal’s body was placed in a cage-like structure hanging from a gallows usually at a crossroads near the scene of the crime and left there indefinitely as a warning to potential murderers. The denial of a Christian burial and the consequent inevitability of an eternity in Hell did indeed strike terror into convicted murderers, but appears not to have been a deterrent to prospective murderers.
The punishment was not extensively meted out. By the time the Act was effectively repealed, less than two men a year had suffered the indignity of gibbetting.
As with public executions, gibbetting drew huge crowds, often numbering thousands. However, for local people the excitement would soon wear off. The rotting corpse would stink for months, it would be constantly picked at by birds and the creaking and clanging of the iron cage on windy winter nights would be a disturbance for decades.
The known details of Gibbet Hill at New Oscott are meagre. However, in common with all such place names, the gibbet was a significant and gruesome feature of local life over many years.